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January 7, 2011

Writers can make good publishers

Earlier this week, Richard Curtis at e-reads asked Do Authors Make Good Publishers?, and he answers the question emphatically in the first paragraph of his post:

The answer is No. But it’s fascinating to watch them try.

Well, my experience has proven differently. Sarah O’Keefe and I set up Scriptorium Press 10 years ago because our experiences with some big publishers weren’t as fulfilling (or fruitful) as we’d hoped. We decided to publish our own books.


Image by zimpenfish (flickr)

We did overcome some learning curves in running our own imprint, and we made a few mistakes along the way. I’m not going to list out all those “learning experiences” to prevent embarrassment on my part—and boredom on yours. Instead, I’ll concur with one bit of advice Curtis offers:

[Y]ou must distinguish between writing and publishing your writing and weigh the goals and satisfactions of those two vastly different processes.

Page layout, cover design, and marketing do require skill sets beyond those of a writer. For example, when we didn’t have anyone with graphic design skills on staff at Scriptorium, we hired a freelance artist to design our covers.

Just because you’re self-publishing doesn’t mean you have to do everything yourself. If you don’t want to spend much—or any—money on tasks other than writing, be creative about handling those aspects of your publishing endeavor. For example, talk to a student in an arts program about designing your cover in exchange for a credit on the cover. The student gets a nice sample for his or her portfolio, and you get a cover that exceeds what a graphics-impaired writer would have designed (and for the record, I consider myself a graphics-impaired writer).

Even if you end up doing all the work yourself, print-on-demand publishers (such as Lulu and CreateSpace) offer templates and wizards that help you create page layouts and covers that meet their particular printing specifications. Also, the exploding e-book market can provide an even easier path to publication because there really isn’t any page layout involved. Through CreateSpace, for example, an author can upload a Microsoft Word file to create a Kindle edition of a book. So, if you have basic word-processing skills (which most authors do these days), you can publish your work. Another plus of working with a print-on-demand publisher is that there is little or no upfront cost in getting your work published.

When it comes to marketing, it’s likely that you have better ideas about the audience for your book than a big publisher ever would. When Sarah wrote FrameMaker 7: The Complete Reference in 2002, it became clear that the publisher didn’t know how to market a book for software that has a smaller (but rabid) user base. Scriptorium ended up doing most of the marketing push for the book because we were FrameMaker powerusers (and still are). Back then, we didn’t have social media such as Twitter and Facebook to market the book. Today’s social media outlets make it easier (and cheaper) than ever to market a book. A chunk of the money a large publisher gets from sales is to cover marketing efforts, but based on my experience, large publishers don’t have the savvy to market anything that is even remotely a niche title.

One other obstacle to marketing self-published content is the lingering mindset of some that self-publishing is still just a vanity press. I’ll agree there are quite a few self-published titles that should not have been inflicted on the reading public.  However, many self-published works today rival and even exceed the quality of content put out by big publishing houses. I’ve seen many books from major publishers with typos, horrific page breaks, and so on: there has been a noticeable decline in quality of editing and page layout from big publishers in the past decade. Also, publishing houses can’t call themselves the gatekeepers of quality content when they offer contracts to the cast members of a particularly vile reality TV show.

So, if you’re considering publishing your own work, realize that such an effort does require more than writing ability. However, you can make the experience run more smoothly and greatly diminish the financial risk by harnessing the power of print-on-demand publishing houses, experimenting with the easier paths to e-book publication, and using social media to market your book. Don’t be put off when a publisher such as Curtis tells you self-publishing won’t work. I have three editions of Technical Writing 101 (and other Scriptorium Press titles) that prove otherwise.